Would paternity leave help pave way for parental equality in Hong Kong?
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen announced on October 12 that the government would consider a seven-day paid paternity leave for civil servants. Further study will determine whether it is appropriate and feasible to make it a statutory requirement for all employers.
Most of my colleagues and friends, regardless of gender, welcome the idea.
Besides the explicit objective of promoting childbearing and family-friendly practices as stated in the policy address, many European countries see the provision of paternity leave and flexibility for fathers and mothers to share parental leave as a significant way to encourage paternal involvement in their children's development. It is also a commitment to gender equality and an effort to achieve more flexible gender role ideologies.
There is growing evidence of the benefits of paternal involvement in child development and a greater emphasis on fathers being more involved in the family. Studies in 2002 by Caritas Hong Kong and City University and in 2004 by Caritas Hong Kong confirm that many Hong Kong fathers treasure their relationship with their children. Although they pay close attention to the health and personality development of their children, the limitation of time hinders their involvement in providing daily guidance and supervision of children's study and behaviour. The most common parent-child activities they engaged in included playing with their children and watching television.
Despite the increased involvement of men in childcare, there is a persistent gendered division of labour in housework. Data from the Census and Statistics Department shows that women in Hong Kong still do the lion's share of the housework. Figures in 2009 indicated that 38 per cent of females aged 15 and over were responsible for more than 60 per cent of housework in their households. Relatively, men were responsible for a much smaller share of housework than their female counterparts. About two-thirds (68 per cent) of males aged 15 and over were responsible for 20 per cent or less of the housework in their households.
Furthermore, men continue to take a supplementary role in childcare and housework relative to their spouses. Childcare and housework remain the mothers' obligation, and the difficult tasks of supervising children's study and behaviour still lies with mothers. With this paradoxical mix of changes and continuity of gender roles, roles have shifted in the family.
A longitudinal study by Dr Daniel Shek published in 2000 on the differences between fathers' and mothers' relationships with their children has found that the traditional parental pattern of 'strict father, kind mother' has shifted to 'strict mother, kind father' in contemporary Hong Kong. This echoes the recent popular discourse on 'tiger mums' - harsh, nagging and controlling.
The discussion above indicates that further negotiation of the roles of mothers and fathers, and a more balanced family involvement of the two sexes, is necessary.
Combining work with childcare and care for other family members is not only a women's issue. Paternity leave would be a small step forward in this negotiation process.
Rather than making rapid moves by closely following the steps of European countries that provide very generous parental leave, I advocate a more reasonable expectation of the working hours of Hong Kong employees and their availability for work after hours.
Successful negotiation of more balanced family roles is possible only when both parents are available for family involvement after working hours.
Dr Lau Yuk- king is a professional consultant with the department of social work at Chinese University